- Series: The William James Lectures (Book 5)
- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; 2 edition (September 1, 1975)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780674411524
- ISBN-13: 978-0674411524
- ASIN: 0674411528
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #76,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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“Immensely worth reading…What is made available here is a choice work by one of the most acute and original minds that England has produced in our time…The myth that Oxford philosophers in general, and Austin in particular, do nothing but examine the details of ordinary linguistic usage should be exploded once and for all by this new book.”―Times Literary Supplement
“Austin had an extraordinarily keen ear for the subtleties of English and a remarkable sensitivity to the aptness of one expression as opposed to another in a given linguistic situation. To read him is not only a pleasure; it is also to learn much about English and to gain a new respect for its proper use.”―The Massachusetts Review
About the Author
J. L. Austin was a British philosopher of language.
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This is a primer in speech-act theory. Austin highlights the possibility of a category of speech in which statements are neither true, nor false, but performative. Some statements do things; more specifically, when spoken they create a new situation.
In order to qualify as a performative, a statement must meet certain conditions (pp. 12ff; a statement must be made in good faith by someone who has the authority to make it, etc.) and must be made within a horizon of convention: for example, we understand that a minister or a justice of the peace has the authority to create a married-status and not just any old person off of the street.
One of Austin's strengths in this book is he is able to return to the main argument and sum up lines of thought (the weakness is his continuous getting off of topic. Here are three basic definitions which are crucial to his project.
Locutionary Act: Uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference; equivalent to meaning (109).
Perlocutionary Act: consequences of the act performed
Illocution: the act performed; has a conventional force (109).
So far, so good. Speech-act theory is rather simple in the broad contours, but as Austin demonstrates, it suffers the risk of a thousand qualifications. He then gets technical on how a promise/performative may be void, illicit, etc., and this runs for about 6 chapters. By the end the reader wonders, “Why bother?”
Speech-Act theory is a useful way of describing events in our world. As such, I hold to it. If one tries to make it an architectonic theory, then it spins out of control, as Austin himself demonstrated (probably against his intentions). The main drawback with this book, as others have pointed out, is that Austin can't stay on topic for more than two paragraphs.
Here is the fundamental structure of the language of business, innovation, design, politics, social relations, the construction of trust in our communities, and much more.
Our children study language throughout their school years, and no one ever teaches them that if they want to cause something to happen, they must make a request or an offer. If, in our notes and letters, meetings and speeches, arguments and efforts to convince and market, we don't do the action of uttering or communicating a request or an offer, then whatever actions that occur afterwards are all but accidental. "Requests" and "Offers" are two classes of Professor Austin's performative verbs. We teach our children how to be politically correct in their speaking, but not how to make things happen. How can that be?
I think that should be enough to build more interest in this wonderful little book. I recommend it highly.
However, there are two more things that I want to say about the book.
First, I urge the potential reader not to be deceived. This jewel is walking around in a disguise. The book is assembled from talks that Austin gave in 1955 at Harvard University. The language of "the analytic philosophy of language" has served as a successful strategy for hiding the profound relevance of Austin's work for our everyday lives.
From the picture of him available on the Internet, John Langshaw Austin was the perfect 20th Century Oxford Don -- a super-geek. What is not visible there is that he was an enormously pragmatic and wise man. For a key example, during World War II, Austin led the Allied intelligence efforts leading up to D Day.
Second, and much more important for our world today, in this little book, Austin opens for us the language of the era that we have now entered -- the era of services. For the last few decades the economy of the United States has been predominantly an economy of services. Over 90% of the exchanges that make up our economy come from services. (Remember that inside manufacturing, agribusiness, and extraction industries are vast service networks.) Our business leaders have not yet discovered that the language that we currently use for understanding what we do in business is archaic and obsolete. We speak of inputs, processes, and outputs, flows of things and data, resources, assets, and information.
Services are not constructed in the same way that clocks and automobiles are constructed. They are not things. They are social constructions, built in networks of requests and promises, and in trusting relationships between people speaking and listening to each other, today increasingly through electronic media.
This is a book about the language of service.
I recommend it.